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'Confucianism' is a somewhat misleading translation made by Christian missionaries of the Chinese terms referring to 'the tradition of scholars or literati', of which the central character is 'ju'. This tradition is commonly believed to have come from a broad ancient class of shamans-magicians-sorcerers-scholars who were well-known for their knowledge of 'li' (propriety, rituals or rites, ceremonies, moral laws, rules, principles, etc.) and for their expertise in conducting the cultic ceremonies. It is believed that, etymologically, the character ju is related to the characters for 'gentle' and 'flexible' or 'weak' in contrast to those features of 'warriors', and thus the Confucian tradition is the tradition of the gentle, the refined, the cultivated and the noble. It is also believed that as a profession 'ju' referred to dancers and musicians in religious ceremonies, especially to those praying for rain during drought seasons. Later it was gradually extended to become a specific term for those who had knowledge of rituals, history, poetry, music, mathematics and archery, which Confucius and his followers strove to maintain and develop. After Confucianism became the state ideology in the second century BCE, this word came to refer especially to scholar-officials of the Confucian tradition. This tradition has three characteristics:
  1. members of this tradition are learned people or gentlemen in the broad sense, emphasising the value and significance of morals, history and rituals;
  2. they commit themselves to the learning and interpretation of ancient classics; and
  3. they endeavour to carry out, politically and ethically, collectively and individually, the principles embodied in these classics.
Since the tradition and doctrine of Confucianism is based on its classics, various schools within Confucianism are characterised by their specific ways in understanding and interpreting these classics. Confucius (551-479 BCE), the supposed founder of Confucianism, took the six arts (The books of History, Poetry, Changes, Rites, Music, and the Spring and Autumn Annals) as the basic textbooks for his disciples and students, and believed that without proper knowledge and practices of them, one could not possibly speak and behave properly in the world. His commanding personality and profundity of knowledge attracted many followers, of whom seventy-two were said to be closely related to the master. Some of these disciples or their students were credited with recording and editing the conversations of Confucius and the dialogues between his immediate disciples, which late became known as the Analects of Confucius. The Confucian teachings as manifested in the Analects and the Annals of Spring and Autumn, and the academic and political activities engaged in by Confucius and his immediate followers became known as Early Confucianism.

The breadth of themes and questions covered by Confucius left a heritage from which his disciples diverged. After the death of the Master, there emerged different schools, of which eight became prominent during the time of Warring States (475-221 BCE), namely, the schools of Tzu Chang, Tzu Ssu, Yen, Mencius, Ch'i-tiao, Chung Liang, Sun (Hsun Tzu) and Yo-cheng. On the one hand they considered themselves followers of Confucius, devoting to studying, editing and interpreting the classics as well as producing a considerable amount of new literature. On the other hand, they developed the Confucian doctrine in different directions. Among these new developments, the teachings of Mencius who followed Tzu Ssu, the grandson of Confucius, and the teachings of Hsun Tzu led to two distinctive schools. The new developments of the Confucian tradition by the Confucian scholars of the pre-Chin Dynasty (before 221 BCE), which were mainly recorded in such books as the Book of Rites, the Book of Mencius and the Book of Hsun Tzu, came to be regarded as the main body of the doctrine of Classical Confucianism in the time before the Chin dynasty (221-206 BCE).

The situation changed in the reign of the First Emperor of the Chin dynasty, when Confucian scholars were persecuted and Confucian classics burnt. By the time of Wu Ti (140-87 BCE) of the Former Han dynasty (206 BCE-24 CE), however, Confucianism had recovered from this blow and the destruction that civil war inflicted on its classics and learning. Confucianism intertwined with the doctrines of the yin-yang and the Five Elements and even with the popularly apocryphal writings, in which Confucianism was interpreted in religious, mystical and prophetic terms, and Confucius himself was taken as the 'uncrowned king'. The syncretic Confucianism was eventually promoted to be the supreme doctrine of the state, acting as the orthodox ideology, at the expense of all other traditions. A new education system was established on the foundation of Confucian principles, with chairs (po shih) on each of the Five Classics, and the State College and local schools taking only Confucian scholars as students. Concomitant with the development of its new status, Confucian studies concentrated on scholastic analysis and the interpretation of the Five Classics and other Confucian writings; thus Scholastic Confucianism (Ching Hsueh, literally meaning the Learning of Classics) became the mainstream of the entire scholarship of the Han dynasties(206 BCE-220 CE).

Because of the differences in methods of study and versions of the textbooks, Scholastic Confucianism developed along two different lines into two different schools, the New Text School and the Old Text School; the former was represented by the greatest Han scholar Tung Chung-shu (179?-104? BCE), while the latter was represented by Yang Hsiung (53 BCE-18 CE). One of the principal differences between the two schools was that the former held a more religious and transcendental view of Confucius and of the Confucian doctrine concerning the harmony between humanity and Heaven, while the latter took Confucius only as a perfect human being and rationalistically believed that the balance between humanity and Heaven was rooted solely in human activities themselves.

During the time of the Wei-Jin dynasties (220-420), learning in general acquired a mystical dimension as a result of Taoism's and neo-Taoism's domination of Chinese scholarship. The dominant position of Taoism did not lead to the disappearance of Confucianism. Rather, Confucianism developed through incorporating and penetrating Taoist understanding and methodology, and thus became part of the so-called Mystical Learning (Hsuan Hsueh).

Beginning with the Tang dynasty (618-907), Confucianism entered into a new era, reaching its peak during the Sung dynasty (960-1279) . This new form of Confucianism came to be known as Neo-Confucianism (Li Hsueh or Tao Hsueh, the Learning of Principle or the Learning of the Way). Although the renaissance of Confucianism was prompted by the Confucian rejection of the 'foreign religion' Buddhism, in responding to the problems Buddhism and Taoism raised, Neo-Confucianism actually and perhaps unconsciously incorporated Buddhist and Taoist elements into Confucian doctrines in the form of developing some passages in the ancient classics, particularly the Book of Changes. This was a splendid and heroic period for Confucian scholarship, during which a great number of prominent Confucianists created huge and complicated doctrinal systems, contributing to the absolute dominance of Confucianism in politics, ethics, literature and the general way of life in China for the next eight hundred years.

Also during this period the Neo-Confucianists established as orthodox the succession of Confucius via Tseng Tzu, Tzu Ssu and Mencius, and the four books (The Analects, The Book of Mencius, The Great: Learning, and The Doctrine of the Mean) as the most important Confucian classics. With oneness with Heaven and Earth as the goal, the ongoing debates and arguments on how to attain to the oneness with Heaven and Earth led to the emergence of two schools: the Rationalistic school, represented by Cheng Yi (1033-1108) and Chu Hsi (1130-1200) and the Idealistic School, represented by Lu Chiu-yuan (1139-1193) and the Ming scholar Wang Shou-jen (1472-1529) . Along with the dominance of Neo-Confucian doctrines in politics, education and literature, the state cult of Confucius was elevated to the status of being one of the three greatest sacrifices--the other two being the sacrifices to Heaven and Earth and to Royal Ancestors -and Confucius himself was given the titles of 'The Perfect Sage' and 'The teacher of Ten Thousand Years'.

Confucianism in the 19th century was puzzled by the advances made by western powers and the contrasting weakness of China, a perception which caused many people to adopt a critical and suspicious attitude toward traditional values. Reform of both politics and doctrine became urgent for those who called for a departure from the Sung Confucianism in order to acquire from the west the 'new learnings' of sciences and philosophy. Reformed Confucianism was propagated in the name of reviving the New Text School of the Han dynasty, and for a while became a powerful current in the establishment of Confucianism as the state religion, as Christianity was in the west. In this reformed version Confucius was taken to be a divine being with the same status as Jesus and Buddha, and Confucianism, as understood by those reform scholars like Kang Yu-wei (1858-1927) and Tan Tsetong (1865-1898), was believed to have been the doctrine to lead the Chinese from the Age of Disorder to the Age of Great Unity.

The twentieth century saw the final disappearance of Confucianism as the state orthodoxy and the abolition of the Confucian education system, as well as the fierce attacks on Confucianism as the backward and conservative tradition that was responsible for all of China's illnesses. However, in spite of such attacks, there emerged a modern New Confucianism, represented by scholars such as Hsiung Shih-li (1885-1968), Liang Su-ming (1893-1988), Fung Yu-lan (1895-1990), Ch'ien Mu (1895-1990) an d Mou Tzung-san (1909-), which combines the revival of Confucian values with the transformation of its doctrines in the light of other traditions. Two prominent and interrelated trends have emerged out of this form of Confucianism: Modern NeoIdealistic Confucianism and Modern Neo-Rationalistic Confucianism. The former was represented by Liang Su-ming and Hsiung Shih-li, who looked to Buddhism, especially the Consciousness-Only tradition, for the methodological solution to the problems within Confucianism and emphasised the heart/mind as the first principle in Confucian doctrine; while the latter was represented by Fung Yu-lan who moulded the Rationalistic doctrines of Cheng-Chu School of the Sung dynasty and the modern western neo-realistic philosophy to format a new Rationalistic Confucianism.

Contemporary Confucianism is being continued by many scholars in the west - prominent examples being Wing-tsit Chan (1901-1994), Tu Wei-ming, Cheng Chung-ying -and by those who live and study in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Chinese communities in other countries, who take Confucianism not merely as a form of political ideology or a kind of socio-economical ethic, but primarily as a tradition of religious philosophy which is open to the modern world and to the future. In the process of adapting traditional Confucianism into the modern life, Confucian scholars have been striving to establish the healthy interaction between the Chinese tradition and other great traditions in the world, especially that of western philosophies.


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